Paling Blvd. was deserted, the congestion of daytime long since cleared. Amy stood on the sidewalk beneath a moonless sky. Across the street was darkness. A vacant space where the carnival had been. It was gone. She’d missed it.
She crossed mid-block, footfalls echoing on the asphalt as her vision struggled in the failing light. Empty popcorn bags rustled beyond the open gate as shadowy rats foraged among candy-apple cores and half eaten hotdogs. Startled, a yelp wrenched her throat. She glanced behind, eyes wet, toward a sputtering porch lamp.
I’m never going back.
The grounds were cloaked in pitch. Cropped grass had been trampled to dry nubs that crackled as she walked. Disappointment swept through her in waves. No Ferris-wheel or carousel, no rollercoaster or game booths, no clowns. Nothing…
…except in the distance, a solitary shimmer. Near where the arcade once stood, a single beacon.
She followed it.
The shape of a structure emerged from the murk like the bow of a freighter in fog, looming over her. The front was festooned as a giant face with huge painted eyes about the windows. A large gaudy clown’s mouth stretched the full breadth and served as the entry. Bulbs flickered beneath the thick lips, neon teeth.
Amy shuddered. There was nothing but emptiness around her. She turned the knob and went inside.
“Hello?” A hall filled with mirrors contorted her form as she inched forward. The door swung shut.
Ahead, a scraping clamor echoed beyond view.
A silhouette stumbled into the room, tall and wide, blackened by an ominous glow. “Chicago.” A man’s voice muttered. “Everyone laughed in Chicago.”
Amy pressed against a grinning canvas, her heart pounding.
The figure turned, gasping, teeth bared. His face was painted white, crimson dots on his cheeks, eyes arched high with blue makeup, and a leering maw drawn to reach his ears. “Who…? Get Out!” He snarled, words slurred. “We’re closed.”
Her knees went slack. “I missed the carnival and…”
Tendrils of smoke slithered along the floor.
The clown lurched near, lifting a revolver. The burnished steel glinted sharp and black.
Amy fought for air, cold enveloping her, a scream tearing from reflexive depths.
The tendons in his neck flexed as he thrust the weapon forward. “Shut up! You hear? Shut up!”
She bit her lip, swallowing barbed and painful sobs.
His eyes darted between the increasing glow and the cringing girl. “What are you doing here?” His breath was fetid, laced with alcohol.
Amy spoke, but no words came. She struggled. “I … I only wanted to join the carnival. Run away with it to…”
He pushed her to the floor. “Idiot brat!”
Her back bumped against a balloon mural and she lifted her jaw. “I’m … I’m sixteen.”
Smoke thickened as the room began to seethe in yellow and orange. “Punk kid.” He ran his fingers through billowing hair then pointed to the spreading flames and laughed.
Her chin trembled. “No, no.” She shook her head. “I want...”
“Want?” He coughed. “You want the carnival?” He clawed at the make-up on his face. “You came for this?” Dark streaks scarred his façade. “This stuff isn’t the carnival.” He brandished the gun in the rising tumult. “This is.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“The carnival destroys. Breaks you.” His voice cracked. “I was funny in Chicago. Funny. But they forgot…used me.” He placed the muzzle to his temple. “Red in tooth and claw.” His wide eyes blinked. “The carnival is death.”
Amy stood. “No! You’re wrong. There’s laughter, excitement! Nobody tells you what to do! Parents don’t fight! The carnival makes people happy!” She reached to him, fingers grasping. “Please, I want to go away with you.”
Black smoke twisted about the clown’s feet. “Can’t you understand?” A tear traced the curve of his cheek. “It’s all a lie. The carnival won’t help you.”
An explosion shook the building and heat erupted into the room. Flames leapt to the ceiling, swirling, hungry. Amy stumbled toward the door but stopped and turned.
The clown hadn’t moved.
He trembled, sad and slow beneath his makeup. “If you’re not happy before you get here, don’t bother.”
“Then what hope is there in life?”
He shrugged as the hem of his costume ignited. A shot detonate. His body fell.
Amy staggered out, landing in the stubbled grass as the building collapsed. “What hope?”
The bell of a distant steeple beckoned, as if in answer.
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